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Discovering art in plain sight

Street photography has fallen out of favor in art circles, but the tradition is kept alive by dedicated shooters.

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Even poets, who toil at their art with little hope for material success, become more widely known upon receiving an honor such as the Pulitzer Prize. Yet despite having won nearly every important prize in his profession, photographer Ernesto Bazan remains all but anonymous outside the small circle of his colleagues and admirers.

Nevertheless, the Italian photographer says he opens his eyes every morning with a passionate desire to head out into the world with his cameras.

Mr. Bazan is a street photographer, the heir to a genre that once defined photographic art. Such photographers use the theater of the street as their subject matter, transforming the pathos, tension, mystery, and inadvertent humor of real life into images of drama and insight into the human condition. The last great generation of street photographers rose to prominence in the 1960s, but over the past 25 years, the style has seen most of its prestige and influence drain away.

Two key figures of that '60s generation have been the subjects of major exhibitions in New York this year. A comprehensive examination of the work of Diane Arbus appeared at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the spring, and just days after it ended, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) opened a 500-image retrospective of Lee Friedlander's career that continues through the summer. (See accompanying review.) The exhibitions offer an opportunity to reflect on changes in the art world, specifically on the status of street photographers.

Such photography, though related to photojournalism and documentary, is a distinct art form concerned less with events and appearances than with the poetic irony of public life. The practice is "one of the greatest traditions in [the medium]," says Colin Westerbeck, coauthor of "Bystander: A History of Street Photography," with photographer Joel Meyerowitz. Mr. Westerbeck paraphrases Ezra Pound's observation about poetry to define street photography: "It's news that stays news - these are pictures that continue to tell us about the culture long after the events they're involved with have faded."

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